Like a row of books by Faber

Peter Porter

  • Other Passports: Poems 1958-1985 by Clive James
    Cape, 221 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 224 02422 1

It was the young Auden, writing at about the time he was composing his ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, who declared that you could tell if someone was going to be a poet by considering his love of words. If he found words fascinating – their sounds, their peculiar symmetries and associations, their chimes, rhymes, assonances and quiddities – then he was likely to prove the real thing. If, on the other hand, he regarded words as the medium for important ideas he wished to impart, then, however impassioned or crusading he might be, he wasn’t going to be primarily a poet, even if he cast his messages to the world in verse. This nostrum begs many questions, but it remains a good rule-of-thumb. By this test, Clive James is a true poet. Line after line of his has a characteristic personal tone, a kind of end-stopped singingness which is almost independent of what it says. The following are taken at random from Other Passports:

Like injured ozone to angelic wings –
Snowflakes knock spots off Philibert de L’Orme
Woodcut adoring kings with narrow eye
Black-bottomed whitewear out of nowhere fast
You see the azure through the muscatel
The white opacities we hear as thunder

The fact that each is an iambic pentameter disturbs their individual impact by turning them, in this listing, into a sort of joke stanza such as people have often made up by bringing together totally unrelated lines. It also speaks of a characteristic of James’s verse: that the poetry resides in the tension between the loaded singing line and the need to move the verse on in the service of a proper paraphrasable meaning. The quoted lines could never constitute a James stanza, not just because they don’t rhyme, but because obscurity is anathema to him. Yet it is precisely because he harps so much, in both his prose pronouncements, such as the introduction to this book, and in the poems themselves, on poetry as a public art with a responsibility to its readers of satisfying their expectations of form and meaning, that it’s important to stress his latent loyalty to poetry as beautiful language.

The early poems, especially those reprinted from student magazines in Australia, show him as a lyric writer from the start. The most recent, which are in the front of the book, tend to move away from the tight stanzaic or couplet forms of the greater part of his output – poetry from the period of his mock epics beginning with Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage and running through to Poem of the Year – but they, too, are loyal to a lyrical impulse. The reader of James’s poetry should not be misled by his polemic into thinking of him as a reactionary determined to take mentors such as Larkin and Amis au pied de la lettre and never to give vent to an obscure or pretentious line. In general, James’s poetry does not much resemble that of the poets he declares his allegiance to: his temperament is different from theirs. He is more a latterday Metaphysical. Behind his most representative poems I hear the voice of William Empson.

‘Funnelweb’, probably the finest poem he has written, is as hard a nut to crack as many an Empson poem, though it stops short of both the bafflement and authority of ‘Bacchus’. His affection for the language of science, and even more for the world of applied science, is Empsonian. The James who stated that the modern equivalent of a Donatello statue is not something by Henry Moore but a drop-head Lamborghini was only exaggerating a dearly held truth: that the idea of Two Cultures is as silly a notion today as it would have been when Donatello and Brunelleschi were working in Florence. To the rationalism of the Movement, Clive James adds a fondness for the lyric as song text which he inherited as much from the Caroline poets, Rochester and Auden as from Broadway and rock music. Literary critics have not taken kindly to the several albums of songs he wrote with Pete Atkin, and I don’t feel able to assess them myself. But this indifference has been largely an averting of eyes from what we understand only partly and a turning of our gaze to the many other departments of art James excels in. The rock press, however, has sometimes been lethally opposed. One critic, reviewing a James/Atkin album, excoriated James for thinking that neat Movement quatrains could possibly be appropriate to the sort of music Atkin writes. He might have done better to recognise that James’s craftsmanship is positively evangelical in the field of Pop. Let it be better made, as lyrics and music were in the days of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin, is his belief.

This is an important aspect of his drive into popular culture: not just to enjoy the warmth of a wider appreciation and so avoid the inward-looking aridity of much experimental art, but to join in with and even improve on a world of visible virtuosity. It is a James axiom that we look for the finest demonstration of this virtuosity today in performance art (a Tynan-like love of tightrope-walking artists – comedians, gymnasts, racing drivers, and cultural commentators like Gore Vidal) rather than in high art. Modernism has ruined high art for him, largely because it has abandoned its appeal to popular recognition in favour of a kind of self-sealing historicism. But he cannot quite keep his categories watertight. His love of Larkin’s poetry might seem, along with his admiration of Betjeman’s, to fit in with his notion of duty to the common reader, and his successful career as both television critic and performer on the box to add further weight to this preference: but there is plenty of evidence on the opposite side. James’s literary criticism, though it deploys the demotic in ways not usual in the academy (those Lamborghinis), is elaborate and serious, and concedes little to any school of here-and-nowness. Many a reader must have rubbed his eyes when settling down with a Clive James feature in a colour mag to find himself confronted by names such as Contini, Croce, Dante and Hofmannsthal. This is not to say that James’s popular and populist side is not important to him: only that he has never seen any reason why a chat-show host and TV annotator should not also be a serious essayist, novelist and poet. His marginalia on the quirks of modern life find scope in his poetry as well, as Other Passports demonstrates – not just in his ‘Verse Diaries’, but in the section labelled ‘Parodies, Imitations and Lampoons’. He is a parodist of the purer sort, in that he eschews facetious variations on his subjects’ characteristic pieces: instead he works from inside their styles, folding in absurdities not incongruous with seriousness.

This might be called ‘moralistic parody’ and it shows up in his three Lowell sonnets, a mockery of Notebook which was one of the hits of the New Review cabaret at the ICA during Poetry International, 1973. ‘Bob Lull’ was first encountered there reading his newly composed ‘Notes for a Sonnet’. Later in the evening, he appeared, unable to leave well or ill alone, with the poem rewritten – ‘Revised Notes for a Sonnet’ – and then in a third appearance provided an anguished coda entitled ‘Notes for a Revised Sonnet’. These sonnets are not variations on one poem but cleverly assorted Bombay-mixtures representing different aspects of Lowell’s arrogantly modest self-revelation.

                         You were wrong, R.P.
  Blackmur. Some of the others had our insight, too:

Though I suppose I had endurance, toughness, faith,
Sensitivity, intelligence and talent. My mind’s not right.
With groined, sinning eyeballs I write sonnets until dawn
Is published over London like a row of books by Faber –
Then shave myself with Uncle’s full-dress sabre.

It is an unusual blemish to quote an actual sentence of Lowell’s, but together the three poems amount to more than parody: they are not written in admiration, but with disapproval of the poet’s egotism and name-dropping. Not surprisingly, Lowell was not amused.

The same disapproval fills his ‘John Wain’s Letters to Five More Artists’. The target is not just the peculiarly discursive poetry Wain invented in Wildtrack and its sequel, but the poet himself, who is presented as lacking proportion in marshalling great past artists to his side. Vanity, and speaking of oneself as having integrity, are again the targets. The satire is not friendly; it seeks to hurt. Of course, Wain would not have likened himself to Michelangelo, Mozart and Rilke (though he might have done to Django Reinhardt), but the power of the parody lies in the conviction the reader has that the narcissism of the writing makes such comparisons possible. The scattering of knowing tags is well placed: ‘Django, mon cher’; ‘Michelangelo, amico’; ‘Schlaf’ wohl, Wolfgang’; ‘Rainer, mein freund, Dichter’; ‘my turn, padrone.’ Not only is a strained style rendered otiose, a moral presumption is deflated. James is less successful when he is parodying a writer he admires, though ‘What about you? asks Kingsley Amis’ catches the documentary randiness of the Evans Country poems, and manages it in a stanza more elaborate than Amis himself employs.

In his introduction, Clive James treats us to a dramatically shortened Apologia pro vita (or poemata) sua. It is a bit too close to a testimony of former sinfulness offered up at a Salvation Army rally. ‘Though I never had what it took to be obscure, clarity still had to be worked for,’ he states. Thus he suggests that, via the public poetry of his albums of songs and his parodies, he launched his true poetic career in his own persona with Peregrine Prykke in 1974. The reborn James never looked back. Three more mock epics in couplets followed, interspersed with the several letters to friends reprinted in Other Passports. They are all formal verse and one of them, ‘To Pete Atkin: Letter from Paris’, was his initial attempt at ottava rima, the stanza chosen later for his extended verse diaries. In a letter slightly earlier than the one to Atkin, he sets out what by then had become, and was to remain for many years, his creed. Interestingly, this poem for Russell Davies, written while filming with Barry Humphries in Cardiff, is couched in rhyme royal, a stanza which is a Manx-cat version of ottava rima, though it may well predate it, having been used by Chaucer. Auden also decided on rhyme royal for ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, probably to avoid too direct a comparison with Byron and the Italians. James writes:

Now I myself, though full-time a pop lyricist,
Have found the odd stint as a strict-form poet
Has rendered me less trusting, more empiricist,
Concerning technique and the need to know it.
This stuff you must make work or else you blow it.
Sincere intent alone is not enough:
For though the tone is light, the rules are tough.

The last line could be his credo as a poet, but it is possible to read it slightly otherwise than he intends us to. The tough rules are to be used as redemptive agents for the ‘prosaic voice’ he claims is his own true poetic tone. Lapidary work on metre, rhyme and stanza will take the place of that inspiration or afflatus which, in the work of so many poets of his day, he finds faked or forced or hermetic. The line in the Davies poem is expanded to a couplet in the Atkin one:

For all true poets rhyme must equal reason
And formlessness be just a form of treason.

To which the slightly bullied reader is inclined to answer: ‘Yes, but!’

Many of us who enjoy formal versification and who rejoice with James Fenton that Auden cleared our minds of cant and gave us back our freedom to range the long catalogue of traditional poetic tropes are still unhappy at James’s over-narrow raiding of the past. John Frederick Nims pointed out that you can view the durable iambics of English speech in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, as you can see the reef below you if you move over it in a glass-bottomed boat. Yet Plath seldom assumes the regularities of absolute metre. Auden’s and Fenton’s poetry employs regular metre and rhyme on many occasions, but does not seem archaic, whereas much of Other Passports (and not just the necessary journeyman passages in the long diaries), for all the admirable contemporaneity of its subject-matter, feels unspontaneous and willed. This may be no more than the price James pays for his technical virtuosity, but it is disturbing none the less. I am forced to conclude that time passing does change poetic appropriateness and that it is an insufficient response to the excesses of Modernism to return to traditional regularity. Perhaps rhyme has much to answer for as well. I have been surprised to find myself agreeing with Craig Raine in the recent correspondence in the LRB over Milton’s advertisement to Paradise Lost: rhyme would have detracted from the seriousness of that poem. In this century rhyme has to be approached with great caution when writing anything other than light verse. The danger lies in facetiousness, and, a little further off, in inappropriateness. Serious poems can be still composed with rhymes, but the wise poet avoids the virtuoso forms on such occasions, those which call attention heavily (and therefore often comically) to their rhymes. That rhyme applied lightly in serious poems can work will be seen in Auden’s ‘Shield of Achilles’, and in many of Philip Larkin’s poems. Rhyming in Larkin amounts to invisible virtuosity: you’d notice the difference if the rhymes weren’t there, but you hardly notice that they are. ‘That Building’ is a good case of this negative brilliance. Couplets are especially hard to bring off except in satire, Crabbe being the last poet to use them for other than comic purposes.

Such chiding of Clive James’s trust in unmodified received forms carries its own escape clause. By emphasising the tightness and impacted force of regular metre and intense rhyme, he can capitalise on a natural bent for density of utterance and complexity of thought: his Empsonian side. This is what makes ‘Funnelweb’ so effective: the poem is like an intricately cut jewel of which each stanza is a face. By an excess of formality, James sees off archaism, any deliberately backward-facing defiance. This tight style suits him very well in several of his recent poems, and in sustained passages in longer works. ‘Echo Echo Echo’ is another impressive power-pack, its final stanza battening down the hatches on the James ethos for the storms ahead.

Small wonder, therefore, that from time to time,
As dollar-millionaires still nickel-and-dime,
The free-form poet knuckles down to rhyme –
Scared into neatness by the wild sublime.

Nickel-and-diming is what all good poets do, and there cannot be much doubt that James does it most assuredly in his satires. Other Passports is not, unlike the famous photo of him in a custom-printed T-shirt, ‘The Complete Works of Clive James’ – poetic works, that is. The four serio-comic epics are not included. They deserve a few words here, however, since they display a principle somewhat at variance with much I have emphasised so far. Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World is by a long way the finest of them: indeed, it is one of the funniest poems I know – ebullient, inventive and accurate. And the jokes are more than one-liners: they are woven into the story and the poetry. But it is not the poem which shows his prosody at its smoothest. In Felicity Fark and Britannia Bright his handling of the rhyming couplet increases steadily in skill. Prykke’s eminence is due to its subject-matter: the literary world brings out all his satirical skill. The mixture of ventriloquism and moral insight which he showed in his Edward Pygge parodies is now employed at length to create a fast-moving circus of follies and fantasies which is an acute pleasure to read. It doesn’t matter whether you know the persons James is writing about – the particular becomes the generic in his lines. It is not an ‘in’ poem, as some of its critics assert. It can be read with pleasure by anybody with a sense of humour and some knowledge of style, in the same way that Auden’s and MacNeice’s ‘Last Will and Testament’ from Letters from Iceland doesn’t exclude readers who were not up at Oxford. The mock epics which followed are not so successful because James was less interested in the worlds he was satirising. He wrote Fark before he became a media star himself and politicians are unfunny by nature, which spoils Bright. Material is always important to James and Prykke demonstrates that mastery of material bestows style as certainly as good prosody does. When Prykke and its siblings appeared, we were treated to the spectacle of journalists who would normally never claim to have much knowledge of English scansion remembering confidently some of what they were taught at school and taking James to task for his inept scansion and dud ear. Worse even than this were those who endeavoured to show him up by reviewing his poems in their own attempts at heroic couplets, wonderfully ignorant of the fact that the couplet is the most difficult of all forms to handle with naturalness and ease.

How you scan the English language is a highly personal matter. Few of the treatises I have read on the subject have convinced me that their authors hear lines the way I do, and practical demonstrations by friends have not done much to help. The regular distribution of the beat in an iambic pentameter line is merely the undertow of the poetry, not the current. However, if you say that the rhythm of verse is produced by an opposition of demotic emphasis to metric insistence, you will still be no closer to establishing how a poem should be read or spoken. Even in eras of greater formality in poetry, but especially today, the true controller of rhythm is syntax. It is his mastery of syntax, simple or arcane, which prevents Pope’s verse from becoming monotonous in its unremitting iambics. Complaints against Clive James’s verse have been, on the one hand, that it doesn’t scan properly and, on the other, that it is too mechanical. Among the thousands of lines in Other Passports which are intended to be regular I can find only a handful which seem to me to scan clumsily, or not at all. In the Atkin verse letter a line so foxes me I fear it may be a misprint: ‘I’ve lost track of what what I’m doing means.’ The only way I can make it scan is to break it in half at the meeting of the two ‘whats’. This gives it five stresses, but very irregularly. Thom Gunn once drew attention to the striking effect of a similar repetition in a line from Measure for Measure, ‘Why all the souls that were were forfeit once,’ but this scans unexceptionally. Sometimes the sheer over-the-top breathlessness of James’s writing is saved by the strict rhythm it observes.

                                    The scene
Grew crammed with every kind of clean machine.
An Offenhauser woke with shrieks and yells.
The heart-throb Dayglo pulse and Duco preen
Of decals filled the view with charms and spells
As densely drawn and brilliant as the Book of Kells.

It is tempting but misleading to develop some theory of Australian pronunciation and its effects on scansion. Perhaps there is an Australian beat which sounds in verse by Australian poets, but I do not know how to identify it. Some English people have been unable to find the right stresses in poems of mine, but I feel that my work and Clive James’s are not very similar. The rhythm of a writer’s poetry is the most personal thing about it.

In addition to ottava rima and terza rima, James uses the Spenserian stanza with its Alexandrine (as in the passage just quoted) and the intricate tetrameter 14-liner Pushkin invented for Eugene Onegin. This last he adopts for his letter from Moscow to Michael Frayn. Here the subject curdles unpleasantly and James the Cold Warrior puts in an appearance. I am sorry to see him joining Bernard Levin in offering a thanksgiving for the bomb which has guaranteed four decades of peace in Europe. It’s true that any talented man’s career must be pursued in the here and now but the price demanded by Après moi le déluge can be too high. These lines show that he knows who is paying that price, but it is upsetting that he feels no shock at the fact.

But will they risk annihilation?
I don’t think anybody knows.
The thought of total devastation
If ever harsh words come to blows
Still keeps the Super Powers in check.
Better to wring each other’s neck
At second hand, on battlegrounds
Where losses can be kept in bounds.
When ideologies collide
They tend to choose exotic places
Where folk with ethnic-looking faces
Don’t mind committing suicide,
Or anyway don’t seem to. Thus
It’s all thrashed out without much fuss.

No doubt the Left has winked at some frightful experiences, but this stanza’s realpolitik is European ethnocentricity with a vengeance.

The long ‘Poem of the Year’ (1982) softens the sentiment of the previous passage by developing James’s expectations of a new decency in politics via the emergence of the SDP. He can be quite sharp about the party and its creed, but, on the whole, these day-to-day political recordings make dry reading. Like most diaries which take up events as they occur, the poem is very uneven, and comes to life only in short passages. One is a vignette of Solidarity at bay:

White flakes may decorate the searchlight beams –
The barbed wire is exactly what it seems.

Almost as if he were thinking of himself, he celebrates Freddie Laker (only he is on the way out): ‘People identify with personalities.’ His evocation of the sailing of the Task Force for the Falklands is intelligently done, with harking-back to the Athenian expedition to Syracuse. Once again, the sharp-toothed couplet puts it all in focus:

Invincible looks worthy of its name.
The battleship Repulse once looked the same.

Commenting on the IRA bomb which blew up bandsmen in Knightsbridge, his lines take on an irony worthy of their begetter, Byron.

For what’s a bandsman, when all’s said and done,
If not a soldier of a certain sort?
What is a trombone but a type of gun?
What is a bandstand but a kind of fort?
Objectively, the difference is none:
These men were troops no matter what they thought,
And as for sleepy listening civilians –
They symbolise the acquiescent millions.

The Sue Lenier episode in Cambridge finds him poking gentle fun at love-struck dons where Donald Davie thought it necessary to call up the heavy moral artillery. Soon after comes a couplet which would fit into a poem by Pope:

The hoses gush, the truncheons rise and fall
And where a thousand marched, a hundred crawl.

At the end there are two lines which help account for some of the opposition Clive James encounters. Isn’t he too successful and famous to be allowed to be a poet as well?

My fortunes thrived in 1982.
I’d have it on my conscience if I could.

Perhaps he has now moved on from his devotion to strict forms. His early poems – section four of the book – show him experimenting already with shapes which are looser than he later allowed himself and more obviously sui generis. The best of these early works, and a very good poem indeed, is ‘The Crying Need for Snow’. It is a reflective pavanne, rocking gently on a household rhythm which owes much of its effect to carefully placed repetitions and half-repetitions. It is amusing to find him anticipating the Martian manner in ‘Porpoises’, though he is not the only poet who has paid tribute to Craig Raine by pre-echoing him. A fine and mysterious poem from the Sixties is ‘The Outgoing Administration’. Here he says goodbye to the gods.

To think our children now will never know
How beautiful these creatures used to be,
How much more confident than you and me!
The reason why we had to let them go.

The recent poems manage to bring together the best of the qualities in James’s formal period with a new freedom of movement of line and syntax. They are also more emotionally arousing, especially ‘Johnny Weismuller Dead in Acapulco’, which re-creates childhood innocence as effectively as the prose of Unreliable Memoirs does.

The fascination with sounds which Auden expected of a poet has to become in maturity a fascination with words in their right places. After such a prolonged application to the demands of formal verse, Clive James has the will and the expertise to write poetry which is contemporary in more than just the subjects it deals with. There is no reason why it should not be beautiful as well.

We may not cavalierly lift the casque
Which separates us from the consequences
Of seeing how the Godhead in full bloom
Absolves itself unthinkingly of blame.
It knows us as we know it, through our senses.
We feel for it the warmth in which we bask –

The flame reflected in the welder’s mask.